Southwest, others make mobile and social CRM fly

Southwest’s customer advocacy guru offers tips and advice for companies interested in starting or improving their social CRM approaches.

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For companies that depend on repeat business from loyal customers, maintaining a reputation for quality customer service is critical.

For Southwest Airlines, that means delivering a reliable travel customer service—on-time flights and intact luggage—as well as running a contact center that can respond quickly to customer concerns. To respond effectively, companies have to first see the feedback—and that can be a real challenge with all the different social CRM channels that consumers use to communicate.

A few years ago, Southwest discovered that many of its customers were not calling when they needed help or even emailing. Instead, customers were posting about the airline on social media sites, where everyone except Southwest customer services staff could respond.

“There was a portion of the customer base that wasn’t comfortable calling or emailing, but were tweeting,” said Catherine Gantt, manager of customer advocacy and communications for Southwest.

Turning to social media

In response, Southwest developed a customer support team of social media specialists and created a Southwest Twitter feed, Facebook page and YouTube account. The social media team doesn't reply to everything but tries to keep an eye out for solvable problems and potentially inflammatory issues that require fast responses.

Southwest isn’t the only travel company to offer Web customer service, of course. Many airlines and major hotel chains provide online booking capabilities, along with information on their services and nearby attractions. Mega travel booking sites such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.com provide information on local attractions as well as customer ratings and reviews so travelers can share experiences and provide advice on which hotels are best or what clothing to wear on a cruise.

Delta Air Lines also provides a mobile app that allows travelers to check in and scan their own boarding passes without going to the counter. Likewise, Southwest and the Marriott hotel chain have mobile apps that people can use to change their reservations, find information on nearby services or activities, email customer service or even use the Global Positioning System to locate the nearest branch of a car rental company.

As many travel companies look to cut costs, self-service options on a range of communication channels have become more common. Travelers often prefer an online service to spending an hour on hold in a call center queue.

Here are some lessons the travel industry learned as it added multichannel technologies.

Online channels are essential

Customers expect to contact companies by phone and email, at minimum, and increasingly they want to get help through social media, live text chat and mobile devices. Something travel's experience taught: Don’t wait until you have a public relations disaster to ramp up your social CRM efforts.

Only a few years ago, travel companies did not do much more than put up promotional posts on social media sites. That changed rapidly when angry customers began posting rants, pictures and even videos online that went viral and created major negative PR for the companies.

The “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video by musician Dave Carroll and movie director Kevin Smith’s rant about being kicked off a Southwest plane for being too fat are two notorious examples out of hundreds. Since then, high-profile services and retail organizations have been moving into social channels to solve complaints before they become a trending topic on Twitter.

Create customer self-help communities

People increasingly flock to online forums to ask for help on a variety of topics, and the travel industry is one of them. From Travelocity’s ratings and reviews—where travelers post frank assessments of their trips—to helpful responses on Twitter, Facebook and other social forums, it's clear that people are happy to offer, and accept, advice from one another. Company service reps monitoring the forum can always jump in and provide additional help or information if necessary.

HomeAway.com, a vacation rental site that unites owners and prospective renters, maintains several forums for both renters and condo owners to chat and share advice. The site also offers a reviews section for vacationers to post good and bad rental experiences.

“Transparency is at the heart of a trusted and successful online marketplace, and providing ratings and reviews helps create that transparency,” said Jeff Mosler, vice president of global customer experience for HomeAway.com.

Consider Web customer services channels carefully

Southwest only adopts a new channel when it sees that enough customers want to use it to communicate with the airline.

“When you open up a new channel, you take on a larger volume of comments, and we want to ensure that we can continue providing the best level of customer service,” Gantt said.  

Kate Leggett, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., advises companies to evaluate how its key customer audiences want to interact.

“If you’re a high-end services firm, you may want to start with chat and escalate to a phone call,” she said. “But if you're a retailer targeting youth, then you might want to optimize your mobile channel.”

Self-service features aren’t acceptable to all consumers. The younger generation may be comfortable searching for a frequently asked question for information, but older people often want a human voice.

“When you remove that human factor, you create uncertainty and doubt in a lot of people,” said Timothy O’Neil-Dunne, managing partner for travel business consulting site T2Impact.

Integrate customer silos

Too often when a company adds a channel, it becomes a standalone silo that can’t share customer data with other CRM systems. That forces service reps and customers to repeat the same information as they move from one channel to another. Southwest discovered this issue when it initially staffed its Twitter and Facebook accounts with social media employees who did not have full access to, or training in, the customer service systems.

“It was an awkward process where PR would ask around to get information for a customer, and it might take hours to answer something that the services team could have answered in 15 minutes or less,” Gantt said.

Southwest’s solution was to create a hybrid team of customer service reps who were also communications staff. They understood social media—and they knew how to access customer data and quickly answer questions.

Donna Fluss, president of contact center consulting firm DMG Consulting in West Orange, N.J., agreed.

“Often the only group in the enterprise that knows how to handle a high volume of interactions is the contact center. For instance, you need workforce management tools when you reach a certain volume, and marketing doesn’t usually know those tools exist,” Fluss said. She added that, too often, customer service is the last department to find out when a new social media or mobile channel has been added.

“The customer service contact center should be involved in setting up strategy, especially as 80% of the comments and feedback are about customer service issues,” Fluss said. “This goes back to what the goal for CRM was years ago—to get customer service and marketing to work together. It’s a goal that remains elusive.”

Next Steps

Read how half of Fortune 1000 won't see ROI on social media

See how call centers recognize value of social media

This was first published in July 2012

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